More Than a Century After it Was First Proposed, President Biden Signs Historic Law Making Lynching a Federal Crime

After more than a century of efforts by civil rights leaders to make lynching a federal crime, President Joe Biden on March 29, 2022 signed into law historic anti-lynching legislation.

Flanked by the bill’s sponsors, Vice President Kamala Harris, and family members of the late Ida B. Wells and Emmett Till in a ceremony on the White House lawn, Biden signed the Emmett Till Antilynching Act (pictured), officially denominating lynching a federal hate crime. The law allows for crimes — such as kidnappings, aggravated sexual abuse, or attempts to kill — to be prosecuted as lynchings in federal court when a conspiracy to commit a hate crime results in death or serious bodily injury. Individuals convicted of lynching face punishment of up to 30 years in prison.

“Lynching was pure terror to enforce the lie that not everyone belongs in America, not everyone is created equal,” Biden said after signing the bill. Citing recent high-profile incidents of racist violence, he warned that racism remains “a persistent problem” across the United States.

“From the bullets in the back of Ahmaud Arbery to countless other acts of violence — countless victims known and unknown — the same racial hatred that drove the mob to hang a noose brought that mob carrying torches out of the fields of Charlottesville just a few years go,” Biden said. “Racial hate isn’t an old problem; it’s a persistent problem. A persistent problem. And I know many of the civil rights leaders here know, and you heard me say it a hundred times: Hate never goes away; it only hides. It hides under the rocks. And given just a little bit of oxygen, it comes roaring back out, screaming. But what stops it is all of us, not a few. All of us have to stop it.”

The bill is named for Emmitt Till, a teenager from Chicago who was lynched in Mississippi in 1955. Till, who was 14 at the time, was visiting relatives when a white woman accused him of whistling at her. He was kidnapped, beaten, and brutally killed. His assailants threw his body into a river, weighed down by a metal fan tied to his neck. Two men were charged with his murder, but were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. At Till’s funeral, his mother, Mami Till, insisted on an open casket to publicly expose the violence inflicted on her son.

Sponsors of the bill say 200 iterations of anti-lynching legislation have failed to pass since North Carolina Rep. George Henry White first introduced a similar version in 1900. At the time, White was the only Black member of Congress. 122 years later, Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Illinois) introduced the latest antilynching bill in the U.S. House, with Senators Cory Booker (D-New Jersey) and Tim Scott (R-South Carolina) introducing a companion bill in the Senate. The House overwhelmingly approved the bill by a vote of 422-3 on March 7 and it then passed in the Senate by unanimous consent. Three House Republicans voted against the measure: Andrew Clyde (R-Georgia), Thomas Massie (R-Kentucky), and Chip Roy (R-Texas).

The law has been “a long time coming,” said Rev. Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Till’s who witnessed his kidnapping. Parker stood on stage with the president during the signing, along with Michelle Duster, great-granddaughter of journalist Ida B. Wells, whose fearless journalism brought national attention to lynchings at a time it was ignored or excused by the white press. “Through her writing and speaking, [Wells] exposed uncomfortable truths that upset the status quo,” Duster said. “The truth that lynching was being used as an excuse to terrorize the Black community in order to maintain a social and economic hierarchy based on race.

“And for that her life was threatened. Her printing press was destroyed. And she was exiled from the south. But despite losing everything, she continued to speak out … about the violence and terror of lynching.”

In an interview with the Associated Press after the ceremony, Parker credited the protests in response to the police murder of George Floyd and other racial hate crimes with creating the atmosphere in which the bill could finally pass.

Till’s extended family has long advocated for federal anti-lynching legislation. In an interview with the Atlanta Black Star ahead of the Senate vote, Ollie Gordon, a cousin of Emmitt Till, expressed cautious optimism that the bill would finally become law.

“I’m not sure what Emmett would say, but I’m sure he would be pleased with it,” Gordon said. “I’m sure his mother would feel like Emmett’s death would not be in vain and her hard work to keep his legacy alive and fight for some kind of recognition or justice.”

At the signing ceremony, Vice President Harris, who co-sponsored anti-lynching legislation when she was a U.S. Senator, described the passage of the law as a matter of “unfinished business.”

“Today we are gathered to do unfinished business, to acknowledge the horror and this part of our history, to state unequivocally that lynching is and has always been a hate crime and to make clear that the federal government may now prosecute these crimes as such,” Harris said. “Lynching is not a relic of the past. Racial acts of terror still occur in our nation, and when they do, we must all have the courage to name them and hold the perpetrators to account.”

In a pair of landmark reports on Lynching in America, the Equal Justice Initiative has documented more than 6,500 racial terror lynchings in the United States between 1865 and 1950. The Death Penalty Information Center’s November 2020 report, Enduring Injustice: the Persistence of Racial Discrimination in the U.S. Death Penalty, tracks the historical relationship between lynchings and the U.S. death penalty.

During slavery, capital punishment was used as a tool for controlling Black populations and curbing rebellions. After emancipation, terror lynchings proliferated. To discourage lynchings, public officials promised legal executions, often after sham trials. As lynchings decreased in the early 20th century, executions began to take their place in circumstances that earlier would have drawn a lynch mob. Across the South, African-American men and boys were condemned and executed for the alleged rape or attempted rape of white women or girls. No white man was ever executed for raping a Black woman or girl.